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‘Pink Cadillac’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 26, 1989

Beguilingly ramshackle and empty between the ears, Clint Eastwood's new film "Pink Cadillac" is the most embraceable kind of movie trash. In nearly all the important categories -- story, direction, pacing, acting -- the picture is pretty much negligible. Still, almost by force of sheer winning dopiness, the movie seduces you into dropping your defenses. It's weightlessly, irredeemably enjoyable.

"Pink Cadillac" is the most user-friendly of Eastwood's movies. In it, he plays Nowak, a skip tracer -- a bounty hunter who specializes in searching out bail jumpers and hauling them back to stand trial. "That's my job," he says. "Track 'em and snatch 'em." A real bear for boyish pranks, Nowak likes to play dress-up, and as his opening gambit he rings up his quarry and, posing as a deejay awarding a date with Dolly Parton, he lures a burly outlaw out into his limousine, where he slaps on the cuffs.

Except for the collar (and a cop's throwaway line, "What's your favorite radio station?"), there's no punch line to the scene and, for that matter, not much of a setup either. Its purpose -- along with that of another in which Nowak, disguised as a rodeo clown, arrests a bail-jumping cowboy who's just been tossed off a spinning bull -- is to demonstrate what a wild man he is. And you have to admit, the guy is a little bent.

While all this is being established, the filmmakers spin the threads of another plot, involving a young woman named Lou Ann (Bernadette Peters) and her 8-month-old baby, who take to the road to get away from her husband (Timothy Carhart) and his Folsom prison pals. That her getaway car is her husband's pink Cadillac, its trunk full of the money the ex-cons have skunked together for the leader of their white supremacist group, makes her No. 1 on their hit parade.

Skipping bail on a counterfeiting charge puts Lou Ann on Nowak's most wanted list, too. At first he's not eager for the assignment, especially when he finds out that the white-militant Birthright group is involved. But once he's convinced that he's "saving her by catching her," he gives chase. The movie doesn't really get started until these two hook up in Reno, where Lou Ann has gone to make a little real money of her own at the tables, and it nearly voids itself whenever they're not onscreen.

To say that Peters is the best costar Clint Eastwood's ever had isn't much of a claim (who's in the running -- the orangutan?), so let's put it this way: Bernadette Peters steals the movie. Peters has had her moments on film -- specifically, in "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Jerk" -- but never before has she made it this fully onto the screen. Recently, in "Slaves of New York," she seemed pinched and ill at ease; here, she plays her comic scenes with a vivacious abandon, throwing her body into the physical gags and a wiggy intelligence into her line readings. With her squeeze-me, baby-doll voice and short-waisted sexiness, Peters is custom built for bimbo roles, but there was always a knowingness in her playing dumb, a twinkle of smarts. Here, she's smart all the way.

Remarkably, she seems to have had a revitalizing effect on Eastwood as well. She loosens him up and, because she seems more of an equal than his other leading ladies, humanizes him. It's impossible to credit Eastwood with actually being good, but he is moving his face around, making an attempt at accents (which he has no facility for) and, by all the visible signs, at least trying to give a performance. A performance isn't actually what he gives but, playing this relaxed, attractively self-effacing rogue, he does make an appealing spectacle of himself. The character is a departure for Eastwood. For the first time, he uses his age for something other than pathos (as in "Bronco Billy"). Nowak has been a little beaten up by life, and underneath all the good-timin', he seems to have cut back seriously on his expectations. Emotionally, he doesn't venture out much, and his self-protectiveness has some resonance.

This is almost (almost!) an antimacho performance, and the director, Buddy van Horn, appears content to concentrate on the characters for long patches, letting their rapport develop. These two make a nifty comic team -- her craziness makes him seem like less of a square -- but because the final section of the movie turns into feeble shootout with Clint clearing out the racist rats' nest, the pairing isn't allowed to flourish.

There is some genuine feeling in Lou Ann's search for her baby, who is abducted by the white supremacists and held ransom for the cash, but the combination of elements doesn't mix. That the filmmakers -- mostly longtime Clint collaborators -- know it doesn't work is a partial reprieve. At least they don't expend much energy trying to make us believe in it.

"Pink Cadillac" is rated PG-13 and contains some gunplay and adult talk.

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